God’s Steadfast Love – Numbers 21.4-9 & Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22

March 15, 2015 – 4th Sunday in Lent

Introduction: The book of Numbers by its Hebrew title is called “In the Wilderness.” It is the story of the people of God in the desert wilderness as they travel from Egypt and the wilderness mountain of Sinai to the promised land of Canaan.
Read Numbers 21.4-9 [We pick up with the people of God when they are at Mount Hor.]

The Hebrew people have been in the wilderness for a while now. They fled Egypt and have been making their way towards God knows what. A promised land, they have heard, but there’s little evidence of when they’ll ever get there. And out there in what seems like a god-forsaken wilderness, they complain. They grumble. The King James Version called it murmuring. Which is a demure way of saying they spoke against Moses and against God. They said, “We’d rather be enslaved in Egypt than be out here in the wilderness with you.” “We’d rather be slaves of the Pharaoh than be on our way to freedom with our God.”

This is the last of five stories in Numbers where the people complain about their leaders in the wilderness. Up until this story, the complaints have been against Moses (and sometimes, Aaron). In this final of the five stories, the complaints are also against God. And in response, poisonous snakes bite the people and some of them died because of the snake bites. (Which perhaps is why this is the last of the complaining stories.) (Taylor, 99)

In the three verses right before this story of complaining against God and Moses, the people ask God to give them victory in a battle and God does and then they turn around and complain. Which, Professor Gene March says, is “regularly the case when one considers the long history of Israel’s relationship with God.” (March, 100) Lest we are too hard on the Israelites, most of us are probably like that too. Trusting God does not come easily and we are quick to complain when things don’t go the way we want them to go.

When the snakes start biting and people start dying, the Israelites recognize they have turned away from God and they ask Moses to intercede with God on their behalf. And Moses does. And God provides a means for those who are bitten by the poisonous snakes to be healed. And the people live.

Gene March reminds us that “‘Faith’ in the Bible is regularly understood as ‘trust’ rather than ‘belief.’ Moses did not challenge the people to ‘believe’ in some doctrine about God. The aim of Moses was for the people to move forward trusting that God would keep the divine commitment [—the divine promise—] to lead [them] to a new land.” (March, 100)

What is at stake in this story (and the entirety of the people in the wilderness story) is trusting God—which they (and we too) have difficulty doing. In response to the people’s lack of trust, God gets angry. Professor Johanna Bos notes that “God’s anger…is not forever, but God’s sustaining presence is lasting in spite of their shortcomings.” (van Wijk-Bos, 176)

Which points us to Psalm 107—which is placed in the lectionary as a commentary on the Numbers story (Gambrell): O give thanks to the Holy God, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever. Let those whom God redeemed say so: God’s steadfast love endures forever.

The psalm is a recounting of a number of circumstances in which God’s people were in trouble and God delivered them from their trouble. The psalm directs the people to give thanks: for God’s steadfast love and wonderful works to human kind, let the people thank the Holy God. We hear the stanza of Psalm 107 remembering those who were sick and drew near to death. Then they cried out and God saved them. God healed them. Let them thank the Holy God. Which, of course, is used in this juxtaposition of texts to direct people to give thanks to God for bringing healing when they were dying from the poisonous snake bites. God’s steadfast love endures forever. In spite of the people’s shortcomings, in spite of our own shortcomings, in spite of their inability to trust God, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
That part about not being able to trust—or at least a tenousness about trusting—trips us all up.

What keeps us from being able to trust? To trust God and to trust one another? Gene March observes that those who are “‘untrusting’ are quite often unreliable toward one another as well as toward God.” (March, 100)

Do you remember from Intro to Psychology class a discussion of Erik Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development? The very first stage of development in our lives (according to Erickson) is trust versus mistrust. Is the world and are in the people in it basically trustworthy or is the world a fearful place with unpredictable people and events? That’s the first developmental stage we go through when we’re born. When a baby cries, does someone come to comfort her? When a baby is hungry, does someone feed him? When a child’s needs are consistently met, the child will learn that she can trust people to care for her. When a child develops trust, he or she will feel safe and secure in the world. If a child’s needs are not consistently met, the child will learn that he cannot trust people to care for him and he or she will develop fear about the world and its unpredictability.

So let’s talk about fear. Because even if we were raised by people who cared for us and met our needs, there is still a lot of fear in the world. In 1999 in a Harris Poll, 36% of US adults said they were afraid of snakes. (Taylor, 99) In 2014 snakes did not make it to the most feared list. Now 71% of us fear a major terrorist attack in the US;  57% fear being killed in a mass shooting and 69% or people worry cybercriminals will steal their credit card information. At the end of 2014, 43% of people feared contracting the Ebola virus. (www.theweek.com)

No matter what it is we’re afraid of, fear makes us small and timid. It makes us suspicious and quick to judge and criticize and scorn. Fear makes it hard to love.  The writer of 1st John says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” (4.18) Once, in a scary time in my own life, I was trying to recount that verse to a friend and I mixed it up saying, “Perfect fear casts out love” which is also true. Often the things we fear begin to be idols in our lives—we may not see them as physical statues but we grant them power and let them control us.

How many of us live with fears that keep us from doing something we want to do? Or maybe the fear has become so strong we have forgotten that it’s keeping us from doing something we wanted at one point to do.

The fear of God’s people in Numbers kept them from trusting God, kept them hungering after their lives as slaves back in Egypt rather than being able to welcome a life of God’s freedom.

So I wonder what it is that we fear that keeps us from trusting God, keeps us from trusting ourselves to God? What are the fears that keep us stuck in the old stories we tell about ourselves instead of embracing the life of being God’s beloved? Perhaps there is an invitation in the season of Lent to let go of the fear we have so that we might welcome a life of God’s freedom—freedom not just for ourselves but for all people.

Freedom that sometimes takes us places we did not expect and through circumstances we may not ever have wished for—but a freedom that comes with knowing we belong to God and that God accompanies us through all the days and nights of our lives

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works cited
David Gambrell, personal conversation.
W. Eugene March, “Theological Perspective – Numbers 21:4-9, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective – Numbers 21:4-9, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.
http://m.theweek.com/articles/441320/36-statistics-that-reveal-what-americans-like-2014, accessed 14 March 2015.

Living Space – Psalm 19 & Exodus 20.1-17

March 8, 2015 – 3rd Sunday in Lent

This morning our scripture passages are all about the law. Lisa read Exodus 20—the ten commandments—and I read Psalm 19 which has that big section about the desirability and sweetness of the law.

That is probably not what most of us think about—gold or honey—when we think about the law.

We may think about “The Law” as police officers cracking down on criminals. I googled images for “the law” and many of the pictures that came up were of a court gavel—you can think of a judge banging the gavel and calling for, “Order in the court!” A lot of other pictures were of books of laws or of the scales of justice that weigh the pros and cons of a case.

Mostly, I think, we see the law as a set of rules—perhaps arbitrary, perhaps punitive. Maybe we think of the law as a list of rules about things we’re not supposed to do. Like the ten commandments: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t lust after your neighbor’s possessions or spouse. For many of us, the law is probably not something we’re particularly interested in thinking about or having to deal with and if we have to it’s because we have bumped up—or been slammed up—against it.

But listen to how the psalmist describes the law of God. (If you were reading along in your bible, this is verses 7 through 10.) This is how the law is characterized: It is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. And this is what the psalmist says the law does: it revives the soul, it generates wisdom, it creates rejoicing, it enlightens, it is enduring and it is righteous.

I think most of those words are not words that we would use if asked to describe the law. So I wonder what is it about the law of God as it comes to us through the Hebrew scriptures—that is experienced by the biblical writers as life-giving and beneficial.

One thing that may help us is to know that the meaning of the Hebrew word torah that gets translated “law” is more about “instruction [than it is about] legal rules and stipulations.” (Mays, 41) And torah is not just the list of rules—like the ten commandments. Torah, says James Mays in his commentary on the Psalms, “is used in a comprehensive sense to refer to the whole body of tradition through which instruction in the way and the will of [God] is given to Israel…It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and the will of [God] and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness. This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight…because [God] reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it.” (Mayes, 41-42)

So perhaps we really need to use a different English translation—not “law” but “instruction” or as Barbara Brown Taylor translates, “direction or teaching.” (Taylor, 75)

In the Godly Play class, children learn about the ten commandments as “The Ten Best Ways to Live.” Hear what Professor Mays says again: “It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and the will of [God] and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness.”

Perhaps there is a constitutional lawyer out there who would describe the U.S. constitution and laws as something like this but for the rest of us when we about the law of God in the Bible, we are talking about a very different thing than we typically think about when we think about the law in this country. So for this morning at least, let’s use the language of instruction and direction and teaching.

And catch again how the psalmist describes this instruction: it revives the soul, it generates wisdom, it creates rejoicing, it enlightens, it is enduring, it is righteous and it is more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey.
So back to the idea that the instruction, the direction, the teaching of God is not just a list of dos and don’ts. You might think that’s contradicted by the ten commandments—because that, actually, is a list of dos and don’ts. But first, it is a story.

“I am the Holy One your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” begins the story. This is the story of a relationship between the One who created the universe, promised blessing to a nation of people, liberated them when they were enslaved, accompanied them in the wilderness providing food and drink. That’s a pretty big story that is full of difficulty and full of divine grace.

And out of the story comes an identity: We are the people of the One who made us, who freed us, who provided for us.

And out of that identity comes a way of life. Having been created, freed and accompanied by God, how do we then live? The decalogue (that’s another word for the ten commandments—it comes from deca which means ten and logue—like logos—which is related to words) describes how we live. Tom Long paraphrases the decalogue this way: “Because the [Holy One] is your God…you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land. The decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results.” (Long) That is, God frees us to live like this…

Isn’t that kind of an irony in the way we typically think of the law? The law of God, the torah, the instruction, direction, teaching, frees us. Frees us to love God and to love our neighbor—those are the two parts of the decalogue. In this freedom we have an identity and a purpose: we are God’s people, we belong to God and as God’s people we are freed to love God and to love our neighbor.

And so we hear—and might begin to feel—those characteristics the psalmist gives to God’s teaching: It revives the soul, generates wisdom, creates rejoicing, enlightens, endures, is righteous, is more to be sought after than riches and more to be desired than the sweetness of honey. Can you begin to feel that? To feel that freedom? Or maybe feel your own desire for this kind of freedom?

We are free not to chase after other gods. We are free to rest. We are freed from pursuing what does not lead to life. Freed by God, we are set free from treating other people in ways that kill and steal and covet. We are freed from the lies that tell us we do not belong to God. We are freed to become the people God created us to be; to live as God intends for us to live; to become truth about us—that we are the beloved of God.
Now think with me about the story of creation in Genesis 1. In the beginning the earth was a formless void. And God created light and held the light distinct from the dark. And then God separated the sky from the waters. And then God separated the dry land from the waters. In this story, God holds back the chaos so that life can flourish. God pushes back the chaos of nothingness—the formless void—and creates space for life to spring up and thrive. Out of the chaos, God creates living space. Space for life.

And that is what God does in the torah—in what we call the law—the instruction, direction, teaching—including, but not limited to, the specifics of the decalogue. God creates space. Living space. Space for life. God holds back the chaos of all that would tell us we do not belong to God. The chaos that obscures our belovedness. The chaos that persuades us to love only ourselves and not our neighbor. God holds back the chaos so that we might receive God’s instruction and in that direction find freedom. Freedom where there is space for life to flourish. Living space.

It seems to me this is particularly the invitation of Lent. To enter this space of time that we might become aware again (or perhaps for the first time) become aware of our belovedness, to let go of the clamoring chaos that tells us lies and let God’s truth sink deeply into us. The truth not only of our belovedness but the companion truth of the belovedness of our neighbor.

In this living space that God provides we experience freedom and we find again our identity as God’s people and find again our purpose: to love God and to love our neighbor. And in that identity and purpose, we find our true life.

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works cited
Thomas G. Long “Dancing the Decalogue” in Christian Century, March 27, 2006, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-03/dancing-decalogue (accessed March 7, 2015)
James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective – Exodus 20:1-17” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.